Tag Archives: women

Conversations with graduate students

A male graduate student told me he started taking a yoga class only to find that there was only one other man and the remaining 29 were women.  He said he didn’t feel like he belonged and so he dropped the class.

A female graduate student at SODA told me she didn’t see a single talk by a woman and she didn’t feel like she belonged.

(There were talks by women, but with 3-4 sessions, and none of the keynotes by women, well, they can be easy to miss.)

Women in Theory Workshop: Call for Participation

via Lisa Zhang, Tal Rabin and Shubhangi Saraf:

The Women in Theory (WIT) Workshop is intended for graduate and undergraduate students in the area of theory of computer science. The workshop will feature technical talks and tutorials by senior and junior women in the field, as well as social events and activities. The motivation for the workshop is twofold. The first  goal is to deliver an invigorating educational program; the second is to bring together theory women students from different departments and foster a sense of kinship and camaraderie.

The 4th WIT workshop will take place at Google New York, May 28 – 30, 2014, in coordination with NYU and Princeton, right before ACM STOC 2014.

Confirmed Speakers: Lenore Blum (CMU), Julia Chuzhoy (TTI), Shafi Goldwasser (MIT), Orna Kupeferman (Hebrew U.), Katrina Ligett (Caltech), Rotem Oshman (U. Toronto), Vera Sos (Alfrd Rnyi Institute of Mathematics).

Important dates:
Application deadline:  January 20,  2014.
Notification of acceptance: February 10,  2014.
Workshop: May 28-30, 2014.

For more information see https://womenintheory.wordpress.com/ or contact  womenintheory2014@gmail.com.  I attended WIT as a speaker in 2012 and had a wonderful time.  I wish it was something I could go back to every year!  I highly recommend you encourage your graduate students to go!

Women in Theory

I’m on my way back from the 3rd Women in Theory biennial conference. I was invited to the first one, as a participant, but was unable to go due to a combination of teaching my first course, recovering from mono and generally travelling too much in the early months of my post doc. While I’m sorry to have missed that, I am very happy to have been invited this time as a speaker.

The speakers were a cross section of career stages from junior faculty through well-established researchers and covered an array of topics in TCS from algorithms through security. And though the conference was targeted at the 40 or so grad students (only three of which were near graduation), I appreciated the chance to hear survey-ish talks and advice from the panelists (on which all the speakers sat) and meet the next generation of TCS leaders. Well, at least a targeted selection thereof.

Now, I know that such gender-targeted events garner criticism. Is it discrimination to not have male speakers and participants? You probably already know my opinion, but I’ll repeat it here. The gender balance is bad. It’s gotten worse at the undergraduate level since the 80s and 90s and is only very slowly heading toward balance at the graduate and faculty level. Any proponents of the “an unbalanced ratio is possibly the ‘natural’ ratio” can look at any number of fields, (chemistry, medicine, biology) to see that what once was an unbalanced ratio is now balanced. The unbalanced ratio results in discrimination, either explicit or subtle, which causes the numbers to grow ever slowly. Targeted programs and efforts help to overcome this discrimination. The imbalance hurts our field and any field that suffers this problem*. We are missing out on an untapped resource of talent. The Eva Tardoses and Jennifer Chaves and Cynthia Dworks of our world are not anomalies.

I digress. On Monday afternoon, I spoke to a room of 50 women. I have never spoken in front of 50 women before, despite having taught classes upwards of 200 students. In my classes, when I’m feeling lazy and don’t target students to answer questions but just draw from the hands that go up, I don’t get questions or answers from female students. But in this room, many answers. Many questions. Many volunteers. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so at ease giving a lecture before.

I decided, rather than give a talk delving into the details of my own research, or giving an overview of an area, I would give a tutorial. So, I picked up some chalk and taught planar graphs, their properties and how they can be used to design algorithms, for 90 minutes. It went well! I got many blush-inducing thanks after and that made me feel really, really good. I hope others can experience that at some point.

So finally, thank you to Shubhangi Saraf, Tal Rabin, Lisa Zhang and (local organizer) Moses Charikar for making this happen. I do hope it continues to, and I wouldn’t mind at all if it was expanded to have all levels included as participants, because I’d love to go back.

* I have to say that I am very curious as to how a field, such as English, where the gender balance is essentially inverted from our own, handles any discrimination that may arise toward men.

The is-my-comment-appropriate? test

Take your comment and change any gendered words from male to female and ask yourself “Would I say this to or about a man in the same situation?”

For example:

  • “This office is a lot prettier than when I was here” [to a male graduate student, while thumbing the female grad student hard at work] doesn’t change, and your answer would likely be no.
  • “Little girl, you will have to work a lot harder to keep up with the men!” [to a student in the first tutorial of first year physics] becomes “Little boy, you will have to work a lot harder to keep up with the women!”, and your answer would likely be no.
  • “Be careful, you wouldn’t want to be mistaken for a secretary.” [to a female postdoc as she consults a dictionary to settle a disagreement] doesn’t change and your answer would likely be no.
  • “You should be at home, raising children. That is what women are good at.” [to a female professor in her own office] becomes “You should be at home, raising children. That is what men are good at.”, and your answer would likely be no.

Women in Theory workshop — applications due February 29

Applications for attendance at the Women in Theory workshop are due February 29.

The Women in Theory (WIT) Workshop is intended for graduate and undergraduate students in the area of theory of computer science. The workshop will feature technical talks and tutorials by senior and junior women in the field, as well as social events and activities. The motivation for the workshop is twofold. The first  goal is to deliver an invigorating educational program; the second is to bring together theory women students from different departments and foster a sense of kinship and camaraderie.

What I like about this Women in STEM event compared to others is the focus on technical content.  I have been to a number of Women in STEM events and it has, unfortunately, suffered from a “once you’ve been to one you’ve been to them all” feeling.  I wish this workshop had been around in my time.  You may not understand how important it has been to know my fellow female colleagues in theory.  It makes conferences feel much less … sausagey.

I’ll be at the workshop too!  I was invited to speak, and am very excited to be going.  Unfortunately, I’ll have to leave early as I’ll also be starting up the Math/CS REU program at OSU —  applications for that are due today!

My office hours are gender balanced

If I didn’t see the students sitting in the lecture room while I taught and only knew who I was teaching to by the students who speak to me after class, in the hallways or in my office hours, I would think the gender ratio was at least balanced in computer science.

Overwhelmingly, one-on-one, my students are female.  I can be even more anecdotal.  Most students ask me questions immediately after class, rather than during office hours – I encourage this, and loiter outside the classroom, taking questions.  Inevitably, I get several male students first.  Then, after, I get just as many, if not more, female students.  Are the male students more aggressive? Are the female students more polite?

What I’d really like to know: what is your experience?  Do more women see you one-on-one?  In your comments, it would be helpful if you include your own gender …

(I am posting to the TCS aggregator, even though this is not  TCS specific, because I would like the broader reach.)

Women are not at an advantage in our field

I was asked a question a few months ago:

Do women have an advantage in our field?

There was a time when I would have chirped ‘NO!’ and stormed off.  That time might not have been too long ago.  But it is an interesting question, perhaps because it is so ill-defined.  What does advantage mean?  Which women?  Undergrads, grad students, faculty?  What is our field?  Computer science in academia, research labs, industry; theoretical computer science?

The arguments I have heard for ‘yes’ are all closely related.  Because you are a minority, you stick out and garner more attention.  Because we have all been told that we have to do something about the gender inequality, we go out of our way to make sure you are taken care of.  Because the higher-ups tell us that we need to improve our 10% rate, we have affirmative action policies so that we hire you.  I wish I’d done a better job over the years of keeping track of the various studies pointing to increased attrition rates for women at every stage of educational and professional advancement, women being judged based on their accomplishments and men on their potential, women needing to perform at a much higher level to reach the equivalent level as their male counterparts.  But I haven’t kept the links around; they can’t be that hard to track down, but I’m on a shuttle at the moment.  Instead I’ll give you my personal view.  The view I usually give when I am asked this question in person.

First, not all attention is good attention.  I do believe that when I meet someone at a conference that they are more likely to remember my name than I am to remember theirs.  Women do stick out when they are only a tenth of the population.  But often enough I have had the experience that I am not sought out for research conversation but because I am a woman.  Not because I am a computer scientist.*  Even though this may have only happened a handful of times in countless interactions, it makes me question whether all the truly professional interactions have really been so.  It makes me wonder: does this person even respect me as a computer scientist?  When/if it comes time for tenure letters, do I have to blacklist people who I feel see me first as a woman and then as a computer scientist?

At Waterloo, an undergrad told me that she was tired of all this “women in math” stuff she was expected to do.  She just wanted to study math.  So yes, sometimes the extra effort isn’t always positive.  At the training level, this extra effort can be viewed as unfair and undeserved attention that puts women at an advantage over men.  This perception itself lessens the advantage.

And then there is affirmative action.  A comment from a fellow grad student at Brown: “Well, you don’t have to worry, women have a much easier time getting jobs in our field [because of affirmative action]”.  Again, the misperception.  The intent of affirmative action is to overcome the (possibly subconscious) gender biases that are known to occur in the hiring process.  It is/should not the preferential hiring of candidates who are not competitive.  So long as we still hear comments like “she only got the job because she was a woman”, woman are not at an advantage.  And if you think this doesn’t happen, you just need to read the comment thread on the who got jobs where post over at Computational Complexity.

So, it’s my personal belief that woman are not at an advantage while training or working in academia.  I can’t speak for industry, but I can’t imagine it is much different.

* Yes, I realize that this is a two-way street, but I would argue that the gender inequality causes it to happen more often to women than men.

Feminism is still needed

Many blogs have already piped up on the THE article on the deadly sins of academia (thanks to Gordon Wilfong for first directing me to it).  The article isn’t entirely at fault and meant to be in good fun.  The section on Lust, though, by Terence Kealey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham contains such gems that I am sure I need not editorialize:

Normal girls – more interested in abs than in labs, more interested in pecs than specs, more interested in triceps than tripos – will abjure their lecturers for the company of their peers, but nonetheless, most male lecturers know that, most years, there will be a girl in class who flashes her admiration and who asks for advice on her essays. What to do?

Enjoy her! She’s a perk.

I would like to point out, though, the language he uses in his rant:

[T]he universities are where the male scholars and the female acolytes are. […] The fault lies with the females. The myth is that an affair between a student and her academic lover represents an abuse of his power.

While I haven’t personally crossed paths with such overt comments as by Kealy (I have come very close though), the stereotype that men are thinkers and women are not still exists.  Feminism advocates equal rights and equal opportunities for women.  It is our responsibility to create an academic environment that is welcoming to all people, regardless of race, gender or economic means.

Why blog?

Bill Gasarch asked me to make a statement about my blog and in responding to him, I realized I might as well post it here.

This blog will likely be YATB (yet another theory blog) – hopefully I will have something new and interesting to say.  I’d been subscribing to the Theory of Computing Blog Aggregator for some time now (a tool I am very thankful for), but of the 20 or so blogs it contains, Sorelle Friedler’s is the only one by a woman.  If we want to balance the gender inequity in our field, we need to get more women into the system.  If we raise the profile of the women already in TCS (or CS or math or engineering), then perhaps it will seem more desirable to undecided female high school and undergraduate students.

I can’t remember the reference, but someone pointed out on a TCS blog that a particular program committee was rife with TCS bloggers, so yes, my motivation is also selfish.  I am hoping that this blog will gain me exposure, particularly in TCS, and garner me advice.  After all, I’m on my own out here.  Already it feels less lonely.

So I’m not sure what I will blog about.  It will likely be a mix of technical posts and posts about my professional life.  I will feed the TCS-related posts to the ToC blog aggregator.